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Economy Puts US Nuclear Reactors Back In Doubt 392

Posted by Soulskill
from the boo-urns dept.
eldavojohn writes "Remember those 30 new nuclear reactors the US was slated to build? Those plans have been halted. A few years ago, it seemed like a really good idea to build a bunch of nuclear reactors. The environmental impacts of other energy production methods were becoming well known and the economy was tanking. Well, natural gas is now much cheaper, and as a result it looks like building a single nuclear reactor in Maryland is such a risky venture that Constellation can't reach an agreement with the federal government for the loans it needs to build that reactor. The government wants Constellation to sign an agreement with a local energy provider to ensure they'll recoup at least some of the money on the loan, but Constellation doesn't like the terms. So, the first of those thirty reactors has officially stalled, with no resolution in sight. It looks like it'd take an economic meltdown to trigger nuclear reactor production in the US."
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Economy Puts US Nuclear Reactors Back In Doubt

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  • by Cornwallis (1188489) on Tuesday October 12, 2010 @07:17AM (#33868018)

    So in another words we only have to wait a few months for the project to resume.

    • by Joce640k (829181) on Tuesday October 12, 2010 @07:34AM (#33868102) Homepage

      Seriously though, this delay could be a good thing. They were going to build the wrong sort of reactors and perpetuate all the problems of the 1950s atom bomb production plants.

      Thorium reactors, pebble beds..? Not on the shortlist. I'm guessing Westinghouse has plenty of lobbyists.

      • Not westinghouse (Score:2, Insightful)

        by pablo_max (626328)

        I seriously doubt that westinghouse has anything to do with Thorium based reactors not being on the short list despite their many benefits http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium#Key_benefits [wikipedia.org]).
        I would say it has far more to do with the lack of ability to produce weapons with their byproducts. The US would prefer to get a little something extra out of the deal.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by maxume (22995)

          Right, because with our trajectory of decommissioning atomic weapons and huge existing amount of fuel to extract weapons material from, hand wavy strategic concerns are at the top of the list.

          And never mind that a purpose built reactor is a far better source of plutonium for weapons than one designed primarily to provide grid power.

        • Re:Not westinghouse (Score:5, Interesting)

          by anUnhandledException (1900222) <davis.gerald@gmailWELTY.com minus author> on Tuesday October 12, 2010 @08:29AM (#33868686)

          Sadly no commercial power reactor in the US has ever produced nuclear grade material.

          The DOD after demanding we go uranium (over the cheaper and more plentiful thorium) to make weapons found it would be difficult to securely and covertly build bombs with commercial reactor output.

          Instead they found it far more effective to build dedicated "bomb reactors". We build a dozen or so plutonium piles which dutifully converted uranium into plutonium under the optimum conditions to boost weapons grade yield. Those reactors ran for roughly 3 decades.. Today we have roughly 20,000 dismantled plutonium pits (from obsolete weapons) plus a couple metric tons of bulk plutonium. Once produced and refined the plutonium lasts very very very long time. The US could arm not just itself but the entire world w/ nuclear weapons just from our dismantled pits. There is no need for uranium reactors to produce weapons.

          Sadly we are stuck w/ a different kind of legacy. Because of the DOD insistence (for the option they never used) ALL our expertise, knowledge, operateing experience, processes, and ancillary businesses are 100% focused on uranium. Going to thorium would be like starting all over. No company is going to take that kind of multi billion dollar risk without govt support.

          If we want to make the switch to thorium it would require a $50 - $100B commitment from US govt to build the research reactors, the testing, the build out to commercial grade plants, then build a dozen or so plants so we get economies of scale plus the training, and the support businesses (fuel processing, etc).

          You can't build a single nuclear reactor. The overhead is too large. You need a minimum critical mass of reactors to get economies of scale. There is no way to switch to thorium using free market principles (at least not at current energy prices). The risk vs reward simply isn't there.

        • Re:Not westinghouse (Score:4, Informative)

          by careysub (976506) on Tuesday October 12, 2010 @11:39AM (#33871836)

          I seriously doubt that westinghouse has anything to do with Thorium based reactors not being on the short list despite their many benefits http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium#Key_benefits [wikipedia.org]). I would say it has far more to do with the lack of ability to produce weapons with their byproducts. The US would prefer to get a little something extra out of the deal.

          Looking at the Wikipedia page, most the claimed benefits for thorium are no different from those of an appropriately designed modern uranium reactor ("no possibility of a meltdown, it generates power inexpensively, it does not produce weapons-grade by-products .. will burn up ... nuclear weapon stockpiles"), the one signficant different claim ("will burn up existing high-level waste") is not true.

          It can correctly be said that the high level waste from a thorium reactor would be about half that of a uranium reactor, but given the small volume of the current waste stream this gives small actual advantage.

          Thorium reactors are a perfectly viable technology, but it is relatively undeveloped, and thus has much longer lead times, and much greater up front costs for no significant advantage.

          The Achilles heel of nuclear power has always been the high capital costs, which means a longer period before profitable returns, and thus greater risk. It is simple hard-headed investment decision making that has kept nuclear power plants form being built. With thorium this problem is magnified.

          If we can't get an established technology like uranium reactor built, thorium has no chance at all.

      • by QuantumPion (805098) on Tuesday October 12, 2010 @08:04AM (#33868340)

        Not going to happen in the US. Licensing costs are too expensive to justify anything but the 1600 MWe behemoths using standard fuel cycles with proven technology.

        I don't know how many lobbyists Westinghouse has, but I do have an idea of how many engineers they have working to satisfy the NRC's licensing requirements for their own designs. Likewise with Mitsubishi and General Electric.

        • by vlm (69642)

          I don't know how many lobbyists Westinghouse has

          Typical corporate situation where a zillion corps own parts of a zillion other corps. However they seem to have blown about a couple million per year. So I'd guess a high single digit number of lobbyist equivalents, but probably dozens each working part time? Congressmen would see maybe fifty faces, but only get a handful of person-years of work out of the group (insert joke about sounding like where I work...)

          https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/lookup.php?type=c&lname=Westinghouse&goButt2.x=0& [opensecrets.org]

        • Fast Breeders are proven. They produce their own fuel and consume waste products as part of the energy producing cycle, for pity's sake!

          Moar finkin by smarts peepul plox, guvunmunt. kthxbai.
          • by jgtg32a (1173373)
            I thought Breeders were banned in the US because of some nonproliferation bs.
            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by Wonko the Sane (25252)

              Jimmy Carter banned them by executive order.

              Regan overturned the order but no one has tried to build one since then regardless.

      • You'd actually be able to solve the energy problem if you built nuclear reactors that output most of their energy as hydrocarbons [freepatentsonline.com].

        You could get some better economies of scale with larger reactors than we build now but it's hard to transmit and distribute electricity from anything much larger then what we build now.

        Imagine that instead of building 1-2 GW reactors you built a 25-30 GW reactor that produce 1-2 GW of electricity for the grid and about 20,000 gallons of gasoline every hour.

        LFTR would be an excel

        • 30 GW! /Doc Brown

          That is 10 times the thermal power of the largest reactors in operation today. Quite an engineering challenge!

          • Quite an engineering challenge!

            Not really - if you are using the LFTR design it would be much easier due to the unpressurized design. Adding thermal capacity is basically just a matter of using bigger piping.

        • by arivanov (12034)

          The efficiency of this one is less than the efficiency of producing biofuel which is staggeringly low in the first place. Separating CO2 from the air requires a staggering amount of energy as you have to liquefy air first. We are looking at under 5% efficiency for the entire process end-to-end here if not even less - around 1%.

          No thanks.

          I'd rather invest into finding ways to transport, store and use electricity and/or "simple" hydrogen more efficiently.

          • Where you pulling those numbers from?

            In the application Grumman claimed efficiency between 25 and 37 percent without even using high-temperature electrolysis.

  • by WrongSizeGlass (838941) on Tuesday October 12, 2010 @07:24AM (#33868054)
    Reactors are always going to be expensive. At some point the cost will make the power generated by the plant to be not profitable enough to sustain the operation - and maintenance - of the plant. This isn't all that surprising al all. If other sources of power can be built less, and produce power for less, then reactors are going to sit and wait their turn again. Unfortunately for the nuclear industry the approval process takes longer than the economic swings that make their product desirable.
    • by astar (203020)

      Sovereign governments get to emit credit. If they cannot, in these days, what you have is a financier dictatorship. The usual phrase is a bankers dictatorship.

      You are right on the approval process. You want to build a nuke,then you take out a loan. If it takes ten years to start getting revenue, then you are screwed. However, approval,and forced design changes, are a politiical thing, not a property of nukes. Indeed, other countries have been able to build quickly. And now we ar getting barge-based fa

    • Reactors are always going to be expensive.

      I think not:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toshiba_4S [wikipedia.org]

  • by captainpanic (1173915) on Tuesday October 12, 2010 @07:24AM (#33868056)

    Umm...

    Wasn't sustainable energy supposed to be the really expensive one? Wasn't nuclear supposed to save us while the real sustainable energy is being developed?

    It's funny how the costs of nuclear energy are structurally underestimated, while sustainable energy (wind/solar) continuously has to fight the image of being expensive.
    It says enough that all 28 business plans for nuclear reactors are halted, partially because a regulatory system for greenhouse gases (the "cap and trade" system) was not put into effect.

    So... public perception in summary:
    - sustainable energy: requires too much subsidies, too expensive
    - nuclear energy: financially more interesting, needs no subsidies

    Reality:
    - sustainable energy: growing market, although expensive
    - nuclear energy: market stagnation, too expensive

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anubis350 (772791)
      It's much harder (note I said harder, not impossible) to create base load generation for a grid from solar/wind than from nuclear. It requires some sort of energy storage (either a battery, or pumped reservoir, etc) to do so from wind and solar, and if a long enough period of time with the wrong kind of weather happens that base vanishes. If we had *tons* of solar and wind, all over the country balancing load, and very efficient transmission from coast to coast I suppose it would solve that problem, but it'
    • by Pojut (1027544)

      All you have to do is look at who supports each respective technology more (i.e. Republicans or Democrats), and you'll have your answer as to why they each have the public perception that they do.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Joce640k (829181)

      A major cost of nuclear reactors is the bickering of the NIMBYs. Construction can take fifteen years (ten for bickering, five for construction). An investor could be investing in something else which makes money during that time so to convince him to invest in your plant you have to garantee massive returns in the future.

      Wikipedia has a page on the economics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economics_of_new_nuclear_power_plants [wikipedia.org]

      • So then, tell me why construction took decades in Iran? The French shoot protesting NIMBYs, so why does it take so long there as well? How about in China - even the little pebble bed prototypes took a long time.
        IMHO your theory has no worth apart from providing a cardboard cutout figure to blame. If those hippies were really so powerful as you pretend the troops would never have been sent to Iraq because there has never been an anti-nuclear protest anywhere near as big as the anti-war ones.
        Government reg
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by thegarbz (1787294)
      You talk in such absolutes. The real reality is the entire market for resources is quite volatile. For instance I'm happy to hear you Americans have cheap natural gas. Our company built an on-site gas co-generation plant here 10 years ago to take advantages of low gas prices too. At the time the cost of gas energy compared to coal energy was at parity. For several years we we ran our gas generators at max capacity and exported power back to the grid. Fast forward to now, coal is still cheap, but gas prices
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by icebrain (944107)

      Part of the reason nuclear plants are so expensive is that any time the word "nuclear" is mentioned, a bunch of people go "ZOMG NUCLEAR!!! WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE LIKE THREE CHERNOBYL ISLAND!!1!!ONE!" And then they demand study after study after study after study after study, supposedly to make sure the native grasshopper population isn't inconvenienced or trying to prove that the reactor won't be damaged if a rock the size of Bobby Dodd stadium falls on it, but really just intended to ramp the legal costs up

      • by sycodon (149926)

        And since the majority of these people are probably anti-gun nuts, they would just be gatherers.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by BlueParrot (965239)

      Reality:
      - sustainable energy: growing market, although expensive
      - nuclear energy: market stagnation, too expensive

      First of all the article is about competition with natural gas, the cheapest form of electricity generation currently available. The reason nuclear has issues compeeting is the same that renewables don't cut it, the fossil fuels are getting a free pass emitting pollutants and greenhosue gases which would be very expensive to sequester and dealt with properly.

      Secondly when it comes to replacing fossil fuels it's not a question of nuclear OR renewables, we will need both. Even MITs somewhat optimistic forecas

      • by c6gunner (950153)

        Even MITs somewhat optimistic forecast of nuclear growth will not displace the fossil fuels within several decades, and the situation is similar for energy conservation and the renewables. It is however quite possible to get rid of teh fossil fuels if you are willing to use ALL of these techniques in combination.

        Yes, because it's always been much more efficient to build dozens of different products which all do essentially the same job, instead of coming up with one good design and then popping it out like an assembly-line.

        Oh wait ...

    • by Shivetya (243324) on Tuesday October 12, 2010 @08:01AM (#33868304) Homepage Journal

      because every leaf you turn over will provide a new group to challenge the building of a nuclear plant. Wind is not a competitor to Nuclear, it cannot fulfill the same role. Nuclear is base load, Wind can do peak. Wind is starting to feel the regulation and lawsuit issues Nuclear has, not to the same extent. It will, there are enough loons to oppose anything.

      Look up how many "studies" are needed to put up a new reactor, even on a site with them, then compare it to the willingness to look to look the other way when putting up any power generation associated with "green". Then go read the stories where people can't stand the noise of wind farms and ask yourself, how long before that study increases costs to the point people think twice, three times, or more. Then to top it off, you can have your windfarms, provided only the poor are afflicted with them, and pretty soon no coast will be safe because of sight pollution concerns.

      • Some rich bored guy should build a full up super-modern reactor (thorium, pebble bed, fast breeder, I have no clue), and put it near a city, where ever they feel like. Don't do any studies, don't ask anyone if its ok. Just put it there. The catch being that they don't put any fuel in it, and never have any intent of doing so. Its not really a nuclear reactor, so I don't see how it can violate any regulations. And it will just sit there with a website detailing its budget, schedule, and design as a less

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by TheLink (130905)

          it will just sit there with a website detailing its budget, schedule, and design as a lesson to us all.

          Meanwhile I watch with interest that China is building LOTS of old fashioned reactors: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_in_China [wikipedia.org]

          "The country is expected to build around 22 reactors in the five years ending 2010 and projected to build 132 units after and has the most aggressive nuclear power expansion program in the world."

          I won't be surprised if they get rather experienced at building nuclear reactors, and build them for cheaper and cheaper. Hopefully without decreasing safety too much ;).

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      You actually make one of the mistakes that always occurs in this discussion by using the term "sustainable energy". The discussion should be about wind power, solar power, nuclear power, natural gas, oil, coal, etc.. All of these sources of energy have different benefits and costs. Wind power and solar power are not equally good or bad ideas. Whether either one is a good or bad idea depends on where one is talking about putting them.
      The perception of the two that I have seen is this:
      wind/solar power: saf
    • Nuclear would do fine too if it go an utterly unsustainable "renewable energy" credit of 1.25 cent per kWh wholesale.

      That is roughly 25% of wholesale power price. Many wind farms sell power in middle of a night at a loss (litterally pay people to take power) because if they don't they lose the 1.25 cent per kWh credit.

      Let me know when wind/solar can produce 100 GW of power without a 25% subsidy.

      Reality:
      - sustainable energy: growing market only with an unsustainable 25% wholesale power subsidy.

    • Reality:
                The market has already worked all this out. If sustainable energy were economically viable there'd be no room for nuclear power. The problems here are all regulatory. Nuclear energy would also be far less expensive if hippies got out of the way of things like Yukka Mountain.
  • old designs? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by vmaldia (1846072)
    Its possible that all calculations use normal light water reactor designs. I bet the economics would be much better if you used advanced designs like thorium reactors or travelling wave reactors. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Travelling_wave_reactor [wikipedia.org]
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by samkass (174571)

      I doubt it. Any project can be made arbitrarily expensive by political maneuvering, and selling a township or even a state on "Hey, we've got a brand new type of nuclear fission reactor we'd like to try out in your area" suffers from serious NIMBY effects, and thus politicians will try to be seen opposing it.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by TheKidWho (705796)

      Yes of course, unproven reactor designs will certainly be cheaper!

    • Mexican wave reactors would be way better.

  • Costs or Fees? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by glatiak (617813)
    Back when nuclear reactors were falling out of fashion I ran into a study that showed a huge percentage of the cost of a nuclear plant in the US was the legal fees for all the government submissions and approvals. The number that sticks in my head was 90% but I hope this was wrong. I suspect what ever it was it is probably worse now due to the lingering induced paranoia about anything 'nuclear'. And the approval process for any project going through the entrails of government is probably vast. Remembering
  • Well, natural gas is now much cheaper, and as a result it looks like building a single nuclear reactor in Maryland is such a risky venture

    Natural gas is only cheaper because we are using less of it. As soon as the economy rebounds the price will increase. This is the short sighted view that has gotten us into this mess over the last 30 years.

  • by MikeRT (947531) on Tuesday October 12, 2010 @07:43AM (#33868168) Homepage

    Only about 10% of the bailout money actually went to building things America needs rather than maintaining the illusion of prosperity in a number of states.

    Imagine if the federal government had spent all $700B on infrastructure development. That would probably have put a few hundred thousand people back to work temporarily and gotten us at least the majority of those 30 nuclear reactors funded fully.

    The federal government could easily then assign ownership of the loans to a corporation modeled on the Resolution Trust Corporation [wikipedia.org] which was the federal corporation that liquidated the assets of the S&Ls.

    • by MartinSchou (1360093) on Tuesday October 12, 2010 @08:30AM (#33868704)

      Imagine if the federal government had spent all $700B on infrastructure development.

      But that'd be socialism, and that's bad! Glen Beck told me!

    • Only about 10% of the bailout money actually went to building things America needs rather than maintaining the illusion of prosperity in a number of states.

      And your source for this stat is to be found --- where?

      Imagine if the federal government had spent all $700B on infrastructure development

      It takes time.

      Since about 1900, the Black Canyon and nearby Boulder Canyon had been investigated for their potential to support a dam that would control floods, provide irrigation water and produce hydroelectric powe

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by geekoid (135745)

      False. The economic collapse without that money in a much bigger way. Think 25% unemployment followed but another 10%+ the following year as house are lost in the millions.

      Also, we got most of that money back.

      Yes, thats sign the remaining loans over to a private company, what could go wrong.

  • I wasn't aware that the Calvert Cliffs plant was ever scheduled to be the first new design plant to be built in the US. At one time that label was applied to the South Texas Project, and I believe that the two new reactors at Vogtle are now in the lead. The Vogtle reactors use the Westinghouse AP1000 design, and the latest revision to that design is nearing presentation to the NRC for certification. (An earlier revision has already been certified.) The Calvert Cliffs reactor was an Areva EPR, which is s

  • In the aftermath of gas drilling micro-disasters (the nature of gas drilling results in localized environmental damage, but when it happens it is a disaster for those nearby), I'm guessing increasing regulation is going to increase the costs of gas drilling.

    There's a moratorium on shale gas drilling (specifically on well stimulation by hydrofracturing, but no one is going to drill a well they can't frack) in New York State after the rampant water contamination incidents all over Pennsylvania. For example, the groundwater in Dimock, PA became undrinkable within a year or so of the commencement of drilling. People can actually light their tap water on fire now.

    Gas is not a long-term option, and in fact, it looks like the way it is being drilled now is going to have severe long-term environmental consequences (it already has in many drilling areas). Nuclear is a long-term investment.

    • by AB3A (192265)

      The Journal of the American Water Works Association had a significant article this month dealing with the effects of fracking on watersheds. Those of you who think natural gas is clean have no concept of what drillers use to get the natural gas from shale in places such as New York state.

      In fact, the regulations themselves are not aligned to balance these considerations in any way. Drilling rights are completely disconnected from watershed concerns.

      Something needs to happen here... Over the shorter term, w

  • Nuclear power is an expensive frivolity: http://www.rmi.org/rmi/Library/E09-01_NuclearPowerClimateFixOrFolly [rmi.org] I doubt that economic hard times could be a help in pushing it along.
    • Nuclear power is an expensive frivolity

      Wind farms that only produce, on average, 10% of their rated capacity and are only viable with enormous subsidies would better fit that description.

      • by mdsolar (1045926)
        Interesting. Have you considered offshore wind production and rated capacity? There seems to be news about that. You can read about the cost of power from various sources here: http://www.rmi.org/rmi/Library/E09-01_NuclearPowerClimateFixOrFolly [rmi.org] Wind appears to be much cheaper than nuclear power on or offshore.
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Wonko the Sane (25252)

          Wind appears to be much cheaper than nuclear power on or offshore.

          Translation: State-of-the-art wind power looks to be cheaper than nuclear power (after a lot of handwaving about subsidies) so long as you don't consider any nuclear technology invented after 1955.

  • Eventually (one year? five years?) the world economy will pick back up, and energy supplies will tighten back up again. When that happens, having spare base load electric generation capacity will be very valuable.

    I live near Washington DC, and I'm pissed that the local utilities can't see this coming. I've grown used to having the lights come on when I flip a switch, dammit.

  • by Dunbal (464142) * on Tuesday October 12, 2010 @09:33AM (#33869598)

    The whole point of LEADERSHIP is not to invest in alternative energy when other energy sources are prohibitively expensive (how quickly we forget $150/bbl oil), but to shape the future so that when energy costs increase again the infrastructure is already in place.

    I am disappointed that the US government believes that spending trillions of dollars to create inefficient, artificial jobs is more worthwhile than investing in the future of the country in terms of solid infrastructure. Those nuclear plants will not be cheaper to design and build in 20 years.

    In the 1930's FDR went about building the interstate system, completing the Hoover Dam (which provided energy to California, Arizona and Nevada), the Tennessee Valley Authority which provided power to the South-East. This cheap power, as well as the roadways which permitted goods to be moved across the country cheaply, heralded new economic growth.

    Today's government instead would have scrapped these types of projects in favor of repainting federal buildings in Washington, hiring analysts to make sure that homes didn't get foreclosed, while at the same time forking over more money to the banks.

    While nuclear power may be expensive, peak oil is coming and there's no way to stop it. China continues to grow, and India will soon start demanding its share as well. There are not enough straws in the oil milk-shake, and putting more straws in only means that the shake will be finished a lot faster. When oil prices begin to rise again it will only be a matter of a few short months before we hit $150/bbl. In the meantime other "alternative energy" types (wind/solar) continue to be far, far less efficient than nuclear power.

    But hey, we were warned.

  • I'm not being facetious, I've watched a few documentaries where the scientists guessed we'd have viable fusion technology in 10 years or so. I'm not talking in cars, I'm talking power plant scale.

  • Premise: Economy Puts US Nuclear Reactors Back In Doubt

    Conclusion: It looks like it'd take an economic meltdown to trigger nuclear reactor production in the US

  • imminent meltdown? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Crypto Gnome (651401) on Tuesday October 12, 2010 @04:10PM (#33876196) Homepage Journal

    It looks like it'd take an economic meltdown to trigger nuclear reactor production in the US.

    From where I sit (somewhere *outside the US of A*) that does not seem entirely unlikely in the reasonably forseeable future.

    Seriously folks - how long, hard, and deeply to you need to fuxor your economy before *even the retarded aussie dollar* is starting to look good? (clue: you've done enough, you can stop now)

    Or are you claiming that any economy that outdoes Zimbabwe is "in good shape".

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